Mulching for long-term soil improvement?

randall_n(7)December 18, 2012

I have a wacky and probably stupid idea to improve my poorly-drained, compacted clay soil with little money and effort. If I'm being stupid here, please call me out.

We just moved into a newly-built home this summer. The builder put sod in the front yard, but for the sides and back they just seeded and spread straw. The seed didn't really take in most of that area. The soil is heavy clay and was terribly compacted during construction, and the lot is pretty flat. So there's a drainage problem, plus the soil is very low in organic matter (based on visual inspection, not testing). When it rains, the whole yard (other than where sod was placed) turns into sticky mush and stays that way for days. The lot does have some slope to it, so it's not an impossible drainage situation; I think it's mostly the soil that's causing the problem. And until I fix the soil I don't think I'm going to get grass growing.

There are a lot of ways to fix this. Most of them cost money and/or effort. My idea is to get a truckload of wood chips from a tree company (hopefully free) and spread them over the troubled parts of the yard, to a depth of 2" or so. Then let that decompose for a few years, during which I have the benefit of not having to mow those areas, and the mulch itself should drain reasonably well. After the chips are getting pretty well broken down (2 years? 5 years?), I'd start adding organic nitrogen (probably from coffee grounds -- free!) plus some compost and/or compost tea and seed it.

So, why is that stupid, other than taking a long time?

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Blanket(7b, 9b)

It's not stupid at all. Time is your best friend when it comes to using mulch. When you don't have time, you have to resort to lesser quality solutions, like herbicides and pesticides (organic or heaven forbid inorganic).

Here's what I'd do. Forget wood chips. Go nano. Get sawdust from local woodshops. Any shipwrights in the area? Carpenters, timber trimmers, 4H clubs? Coffee from local coffeeshops. Head down to the feedstore and get a few bags of cottonseed meal. Spread all that on your compacted clay dirt and till it in or use a core aerator and tear up that ground good. God will take care of the damage since you have years. Smooth that mixture out. Then dump kitchen scraps that have salad and sugar in them. No meat, fat, vinegar or salty stuff. Now why would you dump sugar out there? Well, the earthworms flat love sugar. I have compacted soil and chirt in one yard, but where I'v worked the ground for a lawn, there are earthworm castings popping up everywhere this time of year every square foot. Yards full of them, the lawn part that is. Actually, where I haven't done this type of thing, where there's compacted clay, chirt and decomposed leaf mold, I have tons of thick moss. Beautiful green moss, thick and lush. Under mature dogwoods, maples, willow oaks, redbuds, surrounded by hollies of every variety, some tall as trees in full berry right now, pyricantha, winterberry, several dozen azalea, rhododendron and mountain laurels....

You want a good lawn in clay soil? You have to have lots of earthworms. More important in the shade than in the sun, and I have plenty of shade with little air movement. In this area, I have elite fescues and bluegrass (yes, bluegrass can survive Dixie summers if you know what you're doing). Mostly fescue though. I'm not big on Chinese grasses like Zoysia, Centipede and St. Augustine, though I have to have the last one in Florida until I defoliate the lawn and install what's known as a Florida Friendly yard. Wish I had some Agent Orange, dadgummit. Let's see, this is Organic Lawn Care, right and people do still have some sense of humor, right?

Now, smooth out the crazy mixture and put down a few dozen pounds of gypsum as top dressing. Then start piling leaves and pine straw on that just like you are thinking. Let it sit a few years, and you will have a great growing medium for a lawn.

If you have shade plus humidity there, consider letting moss grow. You have to have shade PLUS humidity to have good mossy carpet on top of compacted clay soil. If you have that, you're lucky. As I am with lots of good fescue, bluegrass and mosses growing beneath a tall canopy of tall oaks, spreading japanese maples, beautiful variegated dogwoods, redbuds and holly trees. Around the shade yard are several dozen azalea, a dozen camellias, couple a handfuls of rhododendron and loads of smaller hollies (6 footers).... a few yew, athelea, pieres, and acubae...... In the sunny areas, mature crepe myrtles (never cut 'em), Carolina jasmine, rose of Sharon, roses, Knock-Out roses (only 10-foot tall this year!!) a 30-foot weeping yaupon, weeping pussywillows, lilies of all kinds, 20-year-old peoniaes that are already popping up out of the leaf mold this warm winter... Centipede in the sunny yard because it gives me time for other things and needs virtually no care if installed properly......

All these things will do well in compacted clay. For lawns, you have to do a superficial version of what I do for the shrubs and trees (or DID rather, most everything is a few decades old now, so you're talking to someone who understands what time will do....). When I planted shrubs, I dug huge holes and installed bagged soil amendments mixed with dirt from a local dirt supplier. Forget all that nonsense that gets repeated about mixing in native soil if your soil is compacted clay or chirt. There is NOTHING wrong with having a large hole with completely new dirt in it. Especially if you let the leaves from those many shade trees pile up for a few decades like I did. Now I have a decent surface layer of top soil here on Chirt Ridge..... lol

Gypsum has made a noticeable improvement since I started the fescue project some years ago. That plus lime plus Milorganite have done the fescue well in the short term. Also experimented with some liquid soil amendments that are sort of like glorified compost team. What else.... Superthrive once, that helped one spring and made the ground so thick the crane flies didn't do a lick of damage.... But it's the years and years of leaf mold from the red, sugar and japanese maples, the millions of willow oak leaves and acorns that have decomposed either on the lawn area or near by at the woods edge (longleaf and loblolly pine, blackjack oak, hickory of all kinds, redbud and wild cherry overstory.... muscadine, huckleberry, baby longleafs and privet in the understory.....

Very acidic soil. So use this example appropriately. Leaves from these trees, plus cottonseed meal (which the azaleas can't get enough of) tend to acidify the ground. So I use gypsum, Milorganite, lime and some Ironite to balance what nature has so the fescue will be happy. Crimson clover covers the raised beds where tomatoes and peppers and onions grow every summer. It makes a great green manure, and if you want, plant crimson clover on that mixture and let it grow until it dies then till it in (don't overtill) and THEN start piling up leaves and pine straw.

Hope this helps. Have you ever looked at Pregra artificial turf??? lol

Here is a link that might be useful: Cottonseed meal $6/50# in Dixie....

    Bookmark   December 18, 2012 at 10:14PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Where do you live? Zone 7 really does not help because there are zone 7s all around the world.

If you don't want to do anything for a couple years, then do exactly what you are thinking of doing...with a couple of modifications. Once the mulch is on the ground for one winter, the soil is really ready to go. If you wanted to rake the chipped wood off next April you would be fine for sod.

Never rototill in preparation for a lawn. Rototilling fluffs up the soil unevenly. When that soil settles again, it will settle unevenly and you'll have a bumpy surface.

Never rototill anything like wood into the soil. Wood will never decompose unless a certain type of fungus grows on it. It turns out that fungus requires plenty of fresh air to survive. When you bury wood, it will remain wood for a long time. Quite often the surface turns into a dead spot while the wood tries to decompose by taking all the nitrogen out of the surrounding soil. Wood kept moist on top of the soil will decompose in a year or so. Wood buried under ground can sit there for decades. Ask me how I know!

After reading this and many other forums for 10 years, I have come the the conclusion that almost nobody has clay soil. You can demonstrate this for yourself using the jar test (search this forum for about a million descriptions). What you likely have is an imbalance of magnesium in the soil - possibly derived from the application of too much gypsum.

Do not apply lime or gypsum to your soil unless you have a great soil test done which tells you exactly how much you need and how often. Lime and gypsum are two different materials which do different things. If you live in my area where the soil pH is 8.0, you will never need more lime.

After reading these and other lawn forums for 10 years, I have further come to the conclusion that almost nobody has compacted soil. Even of you had road graders driving over your soil for months, it will not necessarily become compacted...UNLESS they drove over it when the soil was soggy. The definition of compaction is when you drive all the air pockets out of the soil. You cannot do that on dry soil. You can do that in about 5 minutes in soggy soil. The beauty of construction workers is they won't even get out of bed if it looks like rain anywhere on the horizon. Besides, they should have regraded your soil after the house was finished. That soil should be relatively fluffy.

Still, soil will almost always be hard following construction. Why? Because you were not watering it once a week. The beneficial soil fungi need moisture to thrive. When the moisture is cut off they die and the soil becomes hard. The fast way to get those guys back is to apply at least 3 ounces of any clear shampoo per 1,000 square feet. Apply that twice at two week intervals along with an inch of irrigation water and the soil will soften right up. The shampoo and deep moisture help create the exact environment that the beneficial soil fungi love. It take 2 to 3 weeks to grow this population of fungi, so give it some time. The soap solution will cost you about a dollar to buy the soap. Apply with a hose end sprayer. You can apply it every week if you want deeper and deeper softness. One of the gurus on another forum is experimenting with more and more soap. He can stick a metal rod about 3 feet into his lawn before it stops. The second best method for softening hard soil is your proposed solution of covering it with mulch. What you don't realize is how dadgummed fast Mother Nature will repair your lawn when it is under mulch. It really only takes one winter. Now, having said that, spring is a terrible time to put down grass seed. There are two reasons for that. One is that the new grass seed will have tender roots which will not stand up to the summer heat. The second is the crabgrass seed in your soil is also looking to sprout next spring. If you water like you are sprouting new grass seed, you will sprout every seed in the area. Taken together, these two issues will give you a full crabgrass lawn by July. If you are going to put the mulch down now and are willing to let it go until late summer, then you can start to rake it off and seed in the fall. But again, we really need to know where you live. If you live in the south, then the southern grasses need to be down in the summer. Bermuda must be seeded in late May to July to get a great start.

And for the record: St Augustine was brought to the Americas by slaves from Africa as bedding. It is native to South Africa but grows wild everywhere along the coast. It is not a Chinese native although it might grow very well there now.

    Bookmark   December 20, 2012 at 12:30AM
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Soil compaction occurs when the mineral soil particles can no longer hold adequate amounts of air and that is usually because the soil no longer has adequate amounts of organic matter. Wood chips, often available from tree trimmers for free because they often have to pay to dump them, can be a good, long term source of soil organic matter. Clay soil particles are in a shape that allows them to fit tightly together which increases clay soils ability to compact.

Here is a link that might be useful: Understanding soil compaction

    Bookmark   December 20, 2012 at 7:28AM
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Blanket(7b, 9b)

Posted this in another thread because it is a well-known celebrity organic gardener source for the use of gypsum in clay soils. It ain't magic, it's just good sense if the clay soil has crusted over like the homeowner says it has. Good follow-ups y'all, thank you.

Did not know that St. Augustine was from South Africa! I always knew it was native to all tropical regions of earth, including China, West Indies, Pacific Islands... It came to one part of Florida through the Reed family, from a trip to China. Anyway, I never knew it could grow in arid South Africa below the ol' Tropic of Capricorn, but hey, you learn something new every day. Didn't know South Africa was where slaves came from either, I thought they were mostly from West Africa. Thanks.

Here is a link that might be useful: Gypsum for healthy surface roots

    Bookmark   December 21, 2012 at 12:11AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

You're putting words into my post/mouth. I said the grass originated in South Africa and grew all along the coast. I did not elaborate on where the African slaves came from. Sorry for the confusion.

    Bookmark   December 21, 2012 at 12:56AM
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Soil scientists, people with phD's that have studied soils for a long time, will tell you that gypsum will not help most clay soils. Gypsum can help sodic clay soils, which are in areas of little rainfall.
The link below may be of some interest to those that wish to learn from a reasonably intelligent person.

Here is a link that might be useful: gypsum and clay soils

    Bookmark   December 21, 2012 at 7:45AM
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Blanket(7b, 9b)

Gypsum is great on sodic clay soils and I don't know a single farmer with a fescue or bermuda pasture that doesn't use gypsum as a soil amendment along with organic matter like cottonseed meal, green manures and compost/compost tea. In fact, gypsum often is a better choice than lime because it does the double duty of adding the calcium, and it is already in granular form. When I want to find a book in a library, I go to an academic. When I want my lawn to do well, I look to local farmers who understand real world soil. That might be a good suggestion for anyone who reads these forums. Leave the written word to the researchers, get out there and look at your soil and talk with local farmers at your local co-op.

Here is a link that might be useful: Stuffy but interesting academic link

    Bookmark   December 21, 2012 at 11:14AM
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For an organic gardener/farmer it matters little in what form gypsum, or lime, might be since to become available to the plants we grow they will need to be worked on by the Soil Food Web.
Perhaps spending some time with the Soil Biology Primer would be beneficial.

Here is a link that might be useful: Soil Biology Primer

    Bookmark   December 22, 2012 at 6:56AM
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Thanks to all who responded. Sounds like it's not such a stupid idea after all, though you all have provided some very helpful tips. I hadn't thought about actually raking back the mulch after a season instead of waiting for it all to decompose, but seems like a great idea.

To answer the question of my location, I'm in Durham, NC. I have not even thought yet about what kind of seed to put down or when to do it. I'm pretty new at this, but I'm taking it one step at a time. I can easily wait until fall. I'd probably rather wait, in fact, because spring/summer will be busy with other projects.

As for the construction crews not working when it's a little bit rainy -- that wasn't entirely true on this project! This builder likes to keep things on schedule as much as possible. That might mean stopping work when it's actually raining, but they get right back to it as soon as the stuff stops falling. And this soil stays wet for days, so the place was pretty much a mud pit with foot and vehicle traffic on it. Yes, grading happened toward the end of the process, but they were not all that thorough about it. (This was a budget builder, no money
"wasted" on things like careful landscaping.) And then after that there were a bunch of things that needed fixing, so that meant more ladders and feet in the mud pit.

I also haven't seen an earthworm anywhere near here. All the neighboring lots were recently constructed as well, sprayed with termite treatments and who knows what else, but probably nothing good for worms. There are some natural areas not terribly far away. Maybe in a few years the worms will find their way back again. What kind of worm would I use if I wanted to stock my lawn? I have red wigglers for composting kitchen scraps, but I don't think that's the right thing for lawns. (Those worm castings, by the way, are destined for a veggie garden, not the lawn. Edible veggies get higher priority than pretty grass.)

    Bookmark   December 22, 2012 at 9:50AM
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Blanket(7b, 9b)

Randall, based on your location, here's the government poop on your soil (see below the demarcation). I'm guessing it's not red clay, but rather has some yellow clay in it. Does it look like the picture at the bottom of this post (farm near Raleigh)?

I'd recommend fescue if you want a year-round green lawn. If your soil doesn't crust and get hard during the summer, you can use lime. Otherwise, use gypsum to break up the hard clay surface and Milorganite when it comes time to plant fescue seed. You should never have to dethatch, but aerating once or twice a year can help OM get deeper and work faster after you have a lawn going.

You actually can top dress with granular lime right after seeding and don't worry about the nitrogen reaction. it won't matter that much. I have used peat moss or vermiculite as a top dressing also, but I have a commercial level Hunter irrigation system to keep that moist with regular spritzes. Fescue doesn't like to be covered too much, and even good seed can take three weeks to germinate (sprout). Straw helps, but I sometimes use a very lightweight insect cloth in 100-foot rolls to cover seed for the first three weeks. As soon as the grass is popping up, pull that off so the new sprouts don't "damp off."

Look for the freshest seed you can find, direct from Oregon. Several sources on the internet when it comes to buying seed.

Meanwhile, yes by all means find worms. I can't tell you how nice it is to see piles 4-inches in diameter of wormcastings in my yard this time of year, all over the place. One worm near a Pro-Spray head was about 10-inches long. He was a monster. We have little "cocoons" or egg thingees all over the raised vegetable garden, which has tons of azaleas, camellias and mountain laurels interspersed around additional raised beds for those good ol' veggies. We actually had tomatoes still two weeks ago! Anyway, the cocoons are future worms. Google earthworm images on the net so you can learn to recognize them. If you find them in the woods or anywhere, grab them and put them in your yard. Worms will find a way to organic material, even in clay soils, and they are indispensable. Good luck.



The Durham series consists of deep, well drained moderately
permeable soils formed in loamy residuum from acid crystalline
rock. They are nearly level to sloping soils on broad ridges of
the Piedmont.
TAXONOMIC CLASS: Fine-loamy, siliceous, semiactive, thermic Typic Hapludults

TYPICAL PEDON: Durham loamy sand--cultivated. (Colors are for moist soil unless otherwise stated.)

Ap--0 to 8 inches; light brownish gray (10YR 6/2) loamy sand; weak coarse granular structure; very friable; medium acid; clear smooth boundary. (6 to 10 inches thick)

BA1--8 to 13 inches; pale brown (10YR 6/3) loamy sand; weak coarse granular structure; very friable; strongly acid; clear
smooth boundary. (4 to 10 inches thick)

BA2--13 to 16 inches; pale brown (10YR 6/3) sandy loam; weak medium granular structure; friable, slightly brittle; strongly
acid; clear smooth boundary. (0 to 4 inches thick)

Bt1--16 to 25 inches; brownish yellow (10YR 6/6) sandy clay loam; moderate medium subangular blocky structure; friable,
slightly sticky, slightly plastic; thin continuous clay films; strongly acid; clear smooth boundary. (8 to 10 inches thick)

Bt2--25 to 36 inches; yellowish brown (10YR 5/8) heavy sandy clay loam, few fine and medium distinct (7.5YR 5/6) strong brown
and yellowish red (5YR 4/6) mottles; moderate medium subangular blocky structure; friable, slightly sticky, slightly plastic; thin continuous clay films; strongly acid; gradual smooth boundary.
(10 to 14 inches thick)

Bt3--36 to 42 inches; mottled yellowish brown (10YR 5/8), strong brown (7.6YR 5/8), and yellowish red (5YR 5/8) sandy clay loam; weak medium subangular blocky structure; friable, slightly sticky, slightly plastic; thin patchy clay films on vertical faces
of peds; few fine flakes of mica; strongly acid; gradual wavy boundary. (0 to 8 inches thick)

BC--42 to 48 inches; mottled yellowish brown (10YR 5/4),
strong brown (7.5YR 5/6), and yellowish red (5YR 5/8) sandy clay loam; weak medium subangular blocky structure; friable; few fine flakes of mica; few bodies of sandy loam; strongly acid; gradual
wavy boundary. (5 to 12 inches thick)

C--48 to 60 inches; mottled yellow, yellowish red, and pale brown saprolite that crushes to sandy loam; rock structure;
friable; strongly acid.

TYPE LOCATION: Wake County, North Carolina; five miles south of Rolesville, North Carolina, on county road 2227, 1/4 mile east of Bethany Baptist Church at junction of county road 1003; 50 feet
north of road in cultivated field.

RANGE IN CHARACTERISTICS: The thickness of the loamy horizons
over saprolite range from 40 to more than 60 inches below the surface. Depth to bedrock is more than 5 feet. Coarse fragments range from 0 to 5 percent throughout. The soil is strongly acid
or very strongly acid except where the surface has been limed.

The A or Ap horizons have hues of 7.5YR, 10YR, and 2.5Y, value of
4 to 6, and chroma of 1 to 3.

The BA horizon as hue of 10YR and 2.5Y, value of 6 to 8, chroma of
1 to 4. The A horizon is loamy coarse sand, loamy sand, sandy
loam, or fine sandy loam.

Where present, BA and BE horizons of sandy loam are pale brown, brownish yellow, brown, or light yellowish brown.

The Bt horizon has hue of 7.5YR, 10YR, or 2.5Y, value of 5 to 8,
and chroma of 4 to 8. It has few to common reddish, brownish, or yellowish mottles. Mottles in chroma of 2 or less are below the upper 20 inches of the Bt horizon. It is sandy clay loam or clay loam. Some pedons have lower Bt horizon of sandy clay, but the textural control section averages less than 35 percent clay.

The BC horizon is similar in color to the Bt horizon except where
the mottles are more contrasting. It is sandy loam, sandy clay
loam, or clay loam. The B3 horizon contains weatherable minerals such as mica and feldspar.

The C horizon is mottled or varicolored saprolite of acid
crystalline rock. It is sandy loam or loamy sand.

COMPETING SERIES: These are the Apison, Cahaba, Cowarts, Emporia, Euharlee, Granville, Hartsells, Kempsville, Linker, Marvyn,
Nauvoo, Nectar, Pirum, Spadra, and Suffolk series. Apison, Hartsells, Linker, and Pirum soils have bedrock at depths less
than 40 inches. Cahaba, Nauvoo, and Nectar soils have redder hue. Cowarts, Emporia, Kempsville, Marvyn, Spadra, and Suffolk soils
lack weatherable minerals in the lower solum and have C horizons
of Coastal Plain or old alluvial sediments. Euharlee soils
contain more silt. Granville soils are higher in exchangeable aluminum.

GEOGRAPHIC SETTING: Durham soils are on nearly level to sloping Piedmont uplands. Slopes are commonly 2 to 5 percent and range
from 0 to 10 percent. Durham soils formed in residuum weathered
from acid crystalline rocks, chiefly granite and gneiss. Mean
annual precipitation is about 47 inches and the mean annual temperature is about 60 degrees F. near the type location.

GEOGRAPHICALLY ASSOCIATED SOILS: These are the Appling, Cecil, Helena, Louisburg, Pacolet, Vance, Wedowee, and Worsham series. Appling, Cecil, Helena, Pacolet, Vance, Wedowee, and Worsham soils contain more clay and Louisburg soils contain less clay. Helena
and Worsham soils have mottles with chroma 2 or less in the upper
20 inches of the control section and occupy lower positions on the landscape.

DRAINAGE AND PERMEABILITY: Well drained; medium runoff; moderate permeability in upper subsoil and moderately slow permeability in lower subsoil.

USE AND VEGETATION: About two thirds of the total acreage is in cultivation or pasture. The remainder is in mixed hardwood and
pine. Common crops grown are corn, soybeans, tobaco, cotton,
small grain, and vegetables. Native tree species include loblolly pine, short leaf pine, Viginia pine, sweetgum, whiteoak, red oak, post oak, hickory, and yellow-poplar. Understory species include flowering dogwood, persimmon, sourwood, red maple, eastern redbud, eastern redcedar, and common sassafras

DISTRIBUTION AND EXTENT: Piedmont of North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. The series is of moderate extent.


SERIES ESTABLISHED: Raleigh to New Bern Area, North Carolina,

REMARKS: Durham soils were formerly placed in the Red-Yellow Podzolic great soil group. They ranged in texture of the B
horizon from moderately-fine to fine, and in drainage from well drained to moderately well drained. This revision restricts the texture of the argillic horizon to fine-loamy and the drainage
class to well drained.

Here is a link that might be useful: Cecil soil (probably what you have)

    Bookmark   December 22, 2012 at 9:20PM
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I'm assuming you live in a new development so you might not have many trees in the neighborhood but if you have access to leaves I think that would be a better choice than wood chips.

I get more than enough just from trees on my property but I take my neighbors as well since he just bags his up.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2012 at 10:20PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Good point bgtimber. I steal 20 bags of leaves every year from neighbors who put them out for trash pickup. I use them for compost, but if you don't have a lawn, they work perfect for that mulching effect. They will be mostly decomposed by spring, so you might need twice as many as you think to go until fall. Again, the effect is to cover the soil with something that helps moderate the temperature and moisture in the soil. Almost any mulch is fine as long as it does not float away in the rain. Bark mulch is famous for floating away, so I usually suggest shredded tree mulch. Leaves are great, though.

You are firmly in the transition zone where you can get away with cool or warm season grasses. You might start with one and get weeds from the other. For southern grass I like St Augustine. For northern grass I like Kentucky bluegrass. Neither one needs to be reseeded annually like fescue or rye.

Don't apply any gypsum or lime unless you have a soil test which tells you exactly how much to apply. The best soil test lab for lawns is Logan Labs in Ohio.

    Bookmark   December 23, 2012 at 1:25AM
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Your North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension Service provides you with a free soil test that is adequate for what you need to know about your soils pH and other basic nutrients. Paul Tukey has written fairly extensively about growing an organic lawn and the linked episode of Growing a Greener World is an interview with him and may be of some interest.
Joe Lampl does a real good job explaining organic growing and all of the 3 years of Growing a Greener World can be watched from that web site.

Here is a link that might be useful: Growing a Greener World on lawn care

    Bookmark   December 23, 2012 at 8:16AM
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